Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Consequence of Civilization

Draft of a recent introduction to my book about my explorations on Iceland's Vatnajokull ice cap. I am completely rewriting this book this year. This is about four pages.

A Consequence of Civilization

© 2013 by Cameron McPherson Smith

Liquid hydrocarbons rushed through fine metal pipes and ignited in a stainless steel cavern, spooling up the jet engines and nudging the aircraft down the runway. Acceleration pushed me gently into my seat. At a specific moment lift was generated above the wide wings and the nose of the aircraft tilted up, adding a third dimension to our travel and tipping the flight computers into glorious domains of vector calculus. A soft electronic tone sounded in the passenger cabin. An irregular grid of yellow city lights slid below as we banked up and into low clouds. Flat gray blankeness was illuminated by the wing lights out my window, then as we climbed further it flashed black, then gray again for a time and finally the even black of the night sky speckled with stars as we broke through the cloud layer. In time the jet leveled on course for a hairlike strip of concrete a sixth of the way around the planet's sphere and invisible from the aircraft's current position.

Later we moved over Canadian mountains. Locked in the crags below languished the fossil remains of our ancestors; the fronded Wiwaxia, articulated trilobites and dozens of other kinds half a billion years old. We cruised above their remains in a pressurized and temperature-regulated cylinder not derived of the long processes of biology but comparatively instantly assembled by a proactive cognition capable of directing its own evolution. Two decades of study gave me only momentary comprehension of the vast spans of time and evolutionary mechanisms involved, but when these came they were delicious moments demanding a pen and notebook.

As on any flight, deviations from theoretical models of atmospheric temperatures, pressures and winds aloft nudged the jet from its course. This caused the pilots to point at their displays and murmur to one another as the autopilot brain adjusted the aircraft, nudging back against Nature, continuously attempting to close the gap between theory and reality.

The aircraft did not fly towards Iceland so much as it was drawn there by the promise of lights, warmth and people. These were treasures opposite the supercooled black void just beyond the pressure hull. Gazing out the window I fought the childish personification of that void as an entity grasping for my life energy; properties of gravitation, pressure and temperature simply dictate that voids are filled, with no thought or even the capacity for thought of acquisition.

Long afterwards, having passed over the immense white disc of Hudson Bay and into a fresh night over the North Atlantic, I felt the engines throttle down, initiating the long glide down to Reykjavik. A dozen Vikings had settled there a thousand years before; today there was a city of 40,000 and an airstrip. At the proper moment the autopilot was dismissed. Now, in gestures of great beauty, gentle contractions and extensions of human muscle actuated the flight controls. The jet turned, directed by the minds of two pilots subtly adjusting the attitude of the aircraft from one microsecond to the next. The minds directing those gestures were specialized; the pilots could not grow their own food or weave their own clothing, but civilization had arranged that, properly equipped, they were capable of directing a craft across their diminishing planet.

The jet landed with a long nudge and the comforting roar of thrust reversers. In the cockpit, certain levers were drawn back and certain buttons were pushed. The calm electronic tone sounded again and a woman's voice welcomed us to Iceland with softened consonants. I felt the pilot touch the brakes in a moment of control containing centuries of science. Runway lights flashed through the window, each of their glowing filaments a result of a dozen largely-ignored discoveries. Blowing snow swirled at the edges of the airstrip as we slowed and turned sharply toward low, lighted buildings.

By these techniques and means civilization had reeled our aircraft across the Earth with magnetism, combustion, lift and streams of electrons. We had been reeled through a slender tube, 4,000 miles long and slightly wider than the aircraft itself. The boundaries of the tube were mathematical parameters beyond which there would be a brief disorder and then a quiet rain of matter down to Earth. As a cell deploys enzymes or draws in nutrients to maintain order, the body of civilization was here maintained by yet another momentary act, one of millions working simultaneously against disorder. At this point in evolution it remained necessary for the organism of civilization to maintain a flux of the arrangement of matter, shuttling resources—minds, and the bodies carrying them—from one point in space to another.

I was a product of this civilization as plainly as any jet engine. But consciousness was the stamp that set me apart from even the most elaborate assembly of metal and wiring. And that consciousness—characterized by the ability to represent our surroundings in dozens of metaphoric representations, leading to disorder—allowed me perceive a realm of mystery beyond the boundaries of civilization itself, and to even wish to explore that mystery.

Civilization, then, had produced in me an instrument of exploration, a scout of its boundaries, a sensory tendril much like a Mars lander. This was at least one way to explain my drive to depart the larger body of civilization, for a time, and expend significant portions of my existence—and even risk that existence—exploring a vast sheet of ice, the Vatnajokull. Most life forms die before having their own offspring, a mathematical fact described by humans as 'natural selection'. For the organism of civilization it is natural to risk a life for the food of information.

But why explore the Vatnajokull alone, on foot, in Winter? This mystery is easily dissolved in the acid of evolution. It would be one thing to perceive the ice cap through photographs and satellite images, but that experience employs only few senses, and we have at least five. So it was preferable for civilization for me to go in person, just as one prefers to eat a meal rather see a photograph of a meal. And why alone? The genetic and cultural potions that had built me over some decades had built a person comfortable alone, with thoughts free of social negotiations and largely content to focus on his surroundings. And why in Winter? Because the ice cap had not been explored with all senses by a lone person in Winter.

The Vatnajokull, then, alone in Winter, was a void in human experience, one unknown to civilization, and it was the void into which I was poured or pushed by civilization itself, and by no design but only as an emergent property of the organism of civilization itself.

So as civilization at Reykjavik had inadvertently but orderly drawn specks of civilization from across the planet, civilization indadvertently but orderly pushed my speck out, toward its opposite, the wilderness of the Vatnajokull Ice Cap.

© 2013 by Cameron McPherson Smith

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